In the past I've done stories inspired by suggestions from readers and by randomly selected Notorious BIG lyrics. (I'm reluctant to link to them since a bug messed up the punctuation in a lot of my older entries and, despite my best intentions, I haven't gotten to go back and fix them all. Scroll down or select some more recent ones from the links there on the side if you'd like some more recent, non-messed-up examples.) This month I'll be writing stories based on lyrics from the Bruce Springsteen song "Growin' Up," one line at a time. The song was picked more or less arbitrarily, on the basis of me liking it a lot, and it having lots of evocative lyrics.
Today's story is entitled WEEKEND AT BERNIE'S II: MINDSCREAM AT THE EDGE OF ETERNITY
He was dead. That much he knew. He hovered bodiless for a moment the duration of which was impossible to judge because there were no physical forms, nothing to focus on and judge its movement in relation to anything else. He was aware of himself as a concept and aware of his life on Earth. Realizing his awareness of these things, he became aware that he could still think thoughts. Then he became aware of something else, and it had the immovable character of a fact rather than just a thought of his own devising. The master of this post-life realm, or perhaps the realm itself, was telling him something. And what it was telling him was that he was in Limbo. And what it was telling him was not only was he in Limbo, but he was in a Limbo reserved for people who are dead but whose knuckleheaded former employees are pretending their corpse is still a living person as part of a complicated ruse.
In the Limbo-mists before him, a frame appeared, and through it, he could see his two employees, and his own body draped limply between their shoulders as they maneuvered it around a fancy party. They had dressed it in a Hawaiian shirt and dark sunglasses. In life, he had been known for his short temper, especially in regards to these two and their antics. Now, despite the fact that he was watching them manipulate his body like a crude puppet in a manner he assumed would be unconvincing to anyone paying even remotely close attention, he could not summon up that old anger, or anything like it. Anger was an emotion felt in response to something that had happened, and things happened only in relation to a fixed temporal structure, and here, he was beyond time. He watched as the employees, while reaching out to grab hors d’oeuvres off a passing waiter’s tray, let his body fall forward. The head dropped straight into the ample cleavage of a wealthy female party guest. Realizing their mistake, they dropped the deviled eggs and pulled his corpse back up.
“Sorry, lady,” the fatter of the two employees said.
“He’s had a lot to drink,” said the skinnier.
“You always were a cad,” she said playfully, looking into his body’s face, attempting to make eye contact with the lifeless eyes behind the dark frames. “See that he gets to bed, boys,” she said to the employees, and swished away into the party.
So I always could have done that, he thought, and with the barest implication that I’d had too much to drink, it would have been fine with her. A good thing, even. He thought with amusement about the fear with which he had conducted his life, the unthinking adherence to social norms. It all might have been different with some darker glasses and a louder-patterned shirt. He felt nothing like regret, though. Regret, like anger, was temporal, and he could feel himself slipping further and further away from a human idea of time.
He watched his employees leave his body seated on a white leather couch while they flirted with attractive women. The skinnier of the two employees went on and on about heady topics he didn’t know anything about just because he saw that the girl he was talking to was wearing glasses, while the fatter one took cocktail weenies speared on toothpicks from his girl’s snack plate and attempted the old silent-film trick of making his head look like it was dancing with the weenies as its feet. A third woman appeared, even more attractive than the other two, and sat down next to his body. She tucked her legs underneath her and started playing with his hair. She talked at length, laughing occasionally as though his body was somehow alive, responsive, and saying humorous things.
“You’re such a good listener,” he heard her say after a long while. “I find that’s the most important thing in a lover, don’t you?”
His body could not move or form words, so there was no answer to this question. He knew what would happen next, she would become offended or frightened by this silence and wander away.
On Earth, a second passed. She said, “I’m sorry, was that too forward? Here. Let me make it up to you.”
She leaned in and begin passionately kissing his corpse. The skinner of the two employees finally took notice and came to pull her off, making lots of excuses and alerting the fatter of the two, who threw down the cocktail weenies and came over to assist him. Their boss tuned out of the resulting fracas. Instead, he was thinking: that was all I ever needed to do. All I ever needed to do was sit, inert, on a couch, and it, whatever it was, would have come to me. The whole complicated decision-tree of human interaction, the choosing to act one way or the other from moment to moment and then having it not work out the way you had wanted so you cursed yourself and swore to do the other thing next time only to have that not work out either, it was all entirely unnecessary. I could have just been sitting quietly, in resolute silence, and I would have gotten as kissed and paid and acclaimed as I ever wanted to be. Trying to figure it out had been his cardinal sin. You could logic it out all you wanted but logic clearly did not apply. She had apologized for being too forward, and before he’d even had a chance to respond, had leapt right to kissing him, which was obviously more forward than anything she ever could have said. In his life on Earth he had envied the sort of effortless it-will-work-out-ness certain men and women seemed to have. He had wondered what the secret was, and then eventually decided there was no secret, it was just that some guys had it and some guys didn’t. Now he knew: It was not that there was no secret, it was just that the secret was nothing.
In witnessing, at a distance beyond mere spatial relationship, his body be kissed by a woman, his thoughts drifted to his estranged ex-wife, and from her to the child he had not seen in some time, and now, would never see again. He asked the realm’s master, or the realm itself, if there was any way to see things on Earth besides what he was seeing of the party and his body and the two employees, and immediately received an answer: No. His field of view was limited to his manipulated body and its environs. He fleetingly hoped their shenanigans would somehow bring his employees and his body in view of his ex-wife and daughter so that he might see them one last time, but then he decided this was the opposite of what he wanted. He knew that his reminiscing over them was only habit, a by-product of the residual humanity that was draining from him by the second. Seeing them would only cause him to regret not having the capacity to feel anything but the vague bemusement of the near-eternal.
Someone had given his corpse a boombox. Brassy Latin music was pouring from it, and his sunglasses jumped up and on his face ever-so-slightly along with the bass of the music. This seemed improbable, given what he knew about physical laws, but by now he knew better to question what he saw happening. By now he knew he had been living under a million misconceptions. The music provided the soundtrack for a bunch of party guests doing the limbo underneath a bamboo pole that had somehow appeared. The irony of people doing the limbo, and chanting the word “limbo” as they did so, while he watched from his own very specific Limbo, was not lost on him. In fact, all life from this distance looked like a latticework of ironies he had never noticed when he was alive, intricate and criss-crossing and hammered out by the conscious, living mind into something like a narrative, a journey from one thing into the next, instead of what it looked like from up here, which was a constant collision of oppositional everything, a constantly exploding firework that you only thought was a series of fireworks because you had to blink every so often.
In an Earth-minute, Mafia henchmen with guns descended upon the house. It had something to do with why he was dead and why his two former employees had thought they needed to pretend he was alive. Soon, he thought, if the bullets start flying, a lot more people might join me here. Then he realized that, unless through some bizarre circumstance THEIR employees ended up putting sunglasses and Hawaiian shirts on their corpses, they would just streak on by him here in this Limbo on the way to their ultimate destination.
As soon as they became aware of what was happening, people at the party threw glasses and screamed and ran away. He saw a spiked red heel dig into the white leather of the couch as a female guest vaulted the furniture on her way out. The house was empty in seconds, including his two employees. As shadowy figures came in through the sliding glass patio doors, he saw his body, alone, the music still playing, his sunglasses still jumping. If he had just been passed out drunk instead of actually dead, it would have been up to him to get out alive.
They left him there.
He knew he had seen what he was supposed to see. He felt what would have been hands on what would have been his shoulders if he had been in a material place, and they pulled him towards the infinite.
The ceilings up here at his house were way up there, and the chairs up here at his house were very low to the ground. Looking at the house from the outside that first time, she would have guessed that inside of it, she would have felt tiny, or something, but since all the furniture was extra-low inside an extra-large space, you didn’t get that effect. Where she’d come from, her old boyfriend’s place, the furniture was normal-sized and the ceilings were low and the rooms were tiny. Both places made you feel ill-proportioned. Down there, in the apartment, she’d felt big. Not a giant, like, physically imposing. Just like a fat version of a normal person. It was easy to feel gross there. It had had the open-air-market feel of a place where multiple people and pets lived and they kept the windows open a lot and it always smelled like coffee or like cat food, and all the surfaces had visible crumbs or visible hairs on them, and all the plates in the sink had those little burnt-bubble cheese remnants that indicated someone had eaten something microwavable and bad for you.
Up here, well away from that, because the ceilings were so high but the furniture was also low, you felt awkward, but in a way where you knew as soon as you got used to that feeling, it would mean you were a new, better version of yourself.
So far they’d been having sex at odd times. For instance, ten in the morning, four times right in a row, and then not at all for days and days. The way intensity and boredom refused to be rhythmic was very off-putting, and very dissatisfying, but it was a nice kind of dissatisfaction. It was the kind that made you wonder if there was something wrong with you instead of the kind that made you wonder what was wrong with the other person, and then subsequently, why you weren’t more tolerant of this thing you were sure was wrong with this other person. It was romantic, in the way she was pretty sure that word could mean “adventurous” instead of what we had come to think of as romantic, like, "love."
Where is all this money coming from, she wondered one time about everyone around her and everyone she’d met since coming up here, before scolding herself that absolutely no one around her and no one she’d met thought that, ever, and that mutual refusal to think it or speak it aloud is probably what created the effect, and the effect just managed to become reality. She hated herself for violating the code they never spoke aloud regarding the thing they never thought about, and from then on, whenever she thought something she wished she hadn’t, she would try to hear it in her head in HIS voice, the old boyfriend with the average-sized apartment, which in her memory was warm but not in a cozy way and full of flies and street noise and was basically entirely too life-y, in the sense that real life, really real life, was too imperfect, and in it, you were always tired and annoyed at everyone, and you were just too IN IT, basically. Conversations never went how you thought they would go or ended when they should. In life-life, no one seemed to know how to close a door the right way or when it was the right time to do so.
She would try to hear things the old her (the her she was before she came up here) might have thought in his voice. Then, in her head, in what she hoped was her new voice, without any Kansas in it, she would tell him to shut the fuck up.
There’d been maybe two parties at the house in the time she’d been up here and they’d been to lots more. There was one night at one party where, by the end of it, she knew she’d talked a lot, because though she was drunk, she remembered saying certain things, and her voice was raw and she hadn’t even been smoking or shouting over the music that much, but as she thought back on all the stuff she said, she was pretty sure she had gone the entire evening without making a statement or asking a question.
She thought about him, down there, thinking about how she probably never thought about him, and she thought about how, except for this thought that she was having at this moment, he was right.
She thought about how little he knew about where she was or who she was with, but she knew that he knew enough to extrapolate, and knew that if he knew how close what she imagined him extrapolating was to how it actually was and who she was actually with and what she was actually doing, he would kill himself. Or rather, he would think about killing himself, at various times, with varying degrees of intensity, in between doing normal stuff like feeding the cats or putting DVDs that had been left out, shiny side up, on the coffee table, back into their cases. He would never actually do it. If she was honest with herself, that was kind of his main problem, was that he would just keep living, no poetry to it at all. She knew she was supposed to think there was nothing really wrong with that, the default position of just being alive in the actual world, the basic nobility of just being around. She knew if you tried to articulate to most people just what it was that was so distasteful about it, about him, and her sense of relief about being away from it all, they would think you were shallow. She knew she wasn’t shallow. It really was not about purses or clothes or even about him, and here by “him” she meant the new guy with the high-ceilinged house. It was about actually living the kind of life she had always had to believe existed somewhere, for someone, or else she could not understand anyone wanting to exist at all.
There was a Monday where she fully forgot it was a Monday until she saw a school bus dropping kids off at 3:30 in the afternoon when they were parked outside of his friend’s art-space in the barrio waiting for his friend to come outside with a sack full of sunglasses.
She had been sitting in the passenger seat of his convertible. He was in the driver’s seat. When she remembered it years later, they would be sitting on two separate motorcycles.